It's an Actor's Life for Broadway Papa Chuck Cooper and His Kids Eddie and Lilli
Amazing Grace star Chuck Cooper never figured that his children would follow in his illustrious Broadway footsteps. "It was not anywhere in my psyche," laughs the Tony winner, who lists being Eddie, Alex, and Lilli's father as "his favorite role" in all of his theatrical bios. "All three went to LaGuardia [High School] and were all wonderfully successful in their high school productions, and I thought, Oh, that's nice."
And then Lilli, his youngest, lands the role of Martha (and the coveted song "The Dark I Know Well") in the world premiere of Spring Awakening and later becomes one of Wicked's many Elphabas. Meanwhile, Eddie, the eldest, has booked TV gigs and recently played a CeeLo Green-inspired Audrey II in the New York City Center Encores! Off-Center production of Little Shop of Horrors. As for middle child Alex, though he's not specifically in theater, he is a multi-hyphenate musician-actor-artist.
In a recent conversation with TheaterMania, the Cooper clan sat down to discuss their love of theater, the highs and lows of the actor's life, and the projects they want to work on together.
Is there a history of performing in your family?
Chuck Cooper: All of our voices come from our ancestors. My father had a gorgeous voice. He sang with the Robert Shaw Chorale. I'm convinced that if we did some DNA thing I would come from somewhere in Africa where there were singers. When I would go to family reunions in Toledo, it was required that you get up and sing or do some performance. All of my uncles sang, my father sang. It is very much a part of our lineage, our ancestry.
Eddie and Lilli, when did you first become interested in theater?
Eddie Cooper: I was just surrounded by it my whole life. He was in shows all the time when I was a kid, and my first question when I went to go see him in a show was, "Can I go on the stage?" I just always wanted to go on the stage and I loved the feeling of being on the stage. It stuck, I guess.
Lilli Cooper: I always think back to when I was seven years old and my dad was in The Life. I would go backstage at the Barrymore Theatre, and I would hang out with all the prostitutes. [laughs] They were so pretty and beautiful and had cool costumes and I would think, I want to be one of the prostitutes. I think it was then. I remember helping the stagehands handing off props backstage. All the prostitutes would teach me how to hit my head against the wall, because there was a lot of fighting in that show. I learned pretty quickly for a seven-year-old.
Chuck: Oh god. What have I done?
Chuck, did you ever imagine that you would birth a family of performers?
Chuck: It's been a wonderful, blessed surprise.
Lilli: I think it's been a surprise to us, too. I remember being in middle school and I was always shy…and then eighth grade rolled around and I was like, I want to be an actor! I guess it's in the blood.
Chuck: [Lilli] busts out and gets a Broadway show in high school [Spring Awakening], and she steps forward to sing her song and I'm like, Where did that come from? And Eddie busts out and gets on these TV shows and he's shooting up half the world, which he loves! He could not have gotten a better gig on TV—
Lilli: Than killing a bunch of people with a bazooka.
Chuck: With canons! [laughs]
Eddie: [The show is] called Banshee. [It's] on Cinemax.
Chuck, were you ever worried that your children wouldn't fully comprehend the ups and downs of an actor's life?
Chuck: That piece of it never entered my head…They were there for all the beans and rice, they were there for all the "No, you can't go to camp," "No, you can't have the shoes," because I'm broke. They lived through. They know full well that this is a calling not for the faint of heart. They better know.
Eddie: [We're] gluttons for punishment.
What's it like to watch your kids on stage and TV?
Chuck: There's a Yiddish word, I believe it is nachas [pride]. That's the only word that I can imagine it comes close to. It is this incredible DNA joy that just hums in me. I tell people that my cheeks are sore from smiling. It's exquisite. I love saying "the Cooper Dynasty." I just love it. All three of them.
Lilli: [My brother] Alex is a phenomenal musician. We did a concert called The Cooper Clan several years ago. It was really fun to work all together.
Chuck: They sold out Joe's Pub. SRO. Alex is a triple-threat. He plays guitar, he sings, he's a great actor.
Lilli: He's also an artist. Alex is so multitalented, I look at him and go, "How are you so good at so many things?"
Chuck: I always say he hasn't decided what he's gonna bust out in.
Lilli: He's gonna bust out in something, that's for damn sure.
Lilli and Eddie, do you have a favorite role of your dad's?
Lilli: Has to be Memphis [in The Life]. I remember leaving the theater and people at the autograph line being afraid to ask for his autograph. It was so cool for him to affect them that much.
Eddie: When you're in high school and your dad is a pimp, I know it's messed up, but you get props for that.
Chuck, what are your favorite roles of Eddie and Lilli?
Chuck: Well, he turned out the Plant [in Little Shop of Horrors]. That was crazy. He also did some really wonderful work in Parade [at Ithaca College]. They could have taken that production and put it on Broadway. And definitely Elphaba [in Wicked] for Lilli. That's got to be one of, if not the, hardest female role in the musical theater. And she took that s**t and made it her own and made it look easy.
When are you all going to do a show together?
Chuck: We've got to do a club act.
Lilli: We were thinking Once on This Island.
Eddie: We can all be the gods.